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Success rests on new line and QB for PSU offense

| Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2006

Nice story, that Penn State offense last year. The unit came to life after preseason questions about a new quarterback and an uncertain line.

The 2006 Nittany Lions started preseason practice Monday with the same mysteries. A crop of talented returning wideouts and running backs hope to ease Anthony Morelli's transition as the new signal-caller.

Quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno equates preseason practice for the offense to cooking spaghetti in the kitchen.

"You can experiment, tinker with things and see what he can handle," he said about Morelli. "I liken it to throwing bowl of pasta against the wall. You throw it against the wall, and if it sticks, it's ready."

Morelli, the highly recruited but seldom-used backup behind team leader Michael Robinson, has some playmakers coming back.

Derrick Williams returns following a promising freshman season that was cut short after he broke his left arm in the last-second loss to Michigan. Deon Butler, the team leader in touchdown catches with nine, is also back, along with slight-bodied but sure-handed receiver Jordan Norwood. Hard-nosed 1,000-yard rusher Tony Hunt also returns at tailback along with promising backup Austin Scott.

The strong-armed Morelli is more comfortable throwing in the pocket than Robinson. So when the season kicks off Sept. 2 against Akron, the Nits are unlikely to run the breakouts from the backfield that made Robinson dangerous. Morelli did have a nice showing in the spring game in April, though that was just a glorified practice.

Head coach Joe Paterno urges his coaches to keep things within players' grasps, but he's not worried about whether Morelli can make plays.

"I'm worried about protecting him," he said. "I think we have enough skill people around him to be a good football team, but I think our offensive line is going to be a question mark going in."

There is an excellent building block in left tackle Levi Brown, who had thought about skipping his senior year to go to the NFL. Brown, a co-captain, must mesh four new starters on to the line.

Not that Brown isn't used to the pressure that comes with protecting the quarterback at Penn State.

"There are questions about the line every year since I've been here, right?" Brown said. "That's pretty much what it comes down to. ... There are always going to be questions, we just got to go out there and jell and see what happens."

Repetition is important. An added bonus with going to the Orange Bowl was that the then-backups got extra time on the practice field in December.

There's also the confidence factor. Penn State's biggest season in years gave players a serious taste of winning after two straight losing campaigns and growing criticism of Paterno.

"The biggest difference is the atmosphere," Brown said. "Coming off a winning season, everybody is like, 'OK, we want to go 13-0. OK, I can see that happening.' You might have a few hurdles to get over, but you might be able to get there. Everybody is a little more confident."

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